Curt Columbus POSITION: Artistic director, Trinity Repertory Company BACKGROUND: Columbus came to Providence from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company, where he was associate artistic director from 2000 to 2005. Additionally, he served as artistic director of Chicago Park’s District Theatre on the Lake and an artistic associate at Victory Gardens Theatre. Renowned for his translation work, he was the unanimous choice to be Trinity Repertory’s new artistic director, a position he began in January. EDUCATION: B.A. in Russian and East European studies, Yale University, 1986. RESIDENCE Providence Age: 41
Few pieces of Providence’s arts world are as revered as the 42-year-old Trinity Repertory Company, one of the nation’s most respected community theaters and Rhode Island’s largest arts organization. After Oskar Eustis, who raised the company’s profile to new levels in his decade at its helm, stepped down last fall to become artistic director of the Public Theatre in New York, a search committee unanimously chose Curt Columbus to succeed him. Columbus assumed the position last month.
PBN: You’re known for your translations of works such as Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” How did you end up doing that and how did it affect your career? COLUMBUS: In the late 1980s, the League of Chicago Theatres had a reciprocal agreement with the Union of Soviet Theater Workers. They came to Chicago … and I wanted to be in theater, so I worked as a translator basically for free. They liked working with me, so they hired me to do it [and do work in Russia]. Coincidentally, I started to meet artistic directors in Chicago, and that really furthered my career. … Later in the 1980s, I kept getting asked to do new translations of Chekhov’s work.
PBN: What is the role of the artistic director in the theater? COLUMBUS: I firmly believe that an audience’s experience does not begin or end when the play starts and the play finishes, but instead, the minute they walk into the building. That’s an important part of how the audience receives the work that happens on stage. Also, as we’ve started doing here with “Hamlet,” I think it’s important that there be post-show talk back – opportunities for people who have come to experience a live event to discuss, unpack, converse, commiserate – all of those things. That’s part of my charge as artistic director in addition to programming the plays or, to a lesser extent, directing them.
PBN: And how has the overall experience of “Hamlet” been for you thus far? COLUMBUS: I will say quite candidly that this is the first time I’ve enjoyed the play. I’ve seen five other productions and this is the first I can actually say is exciting, thrilling, well-acted, funny and intelligible – all of the things that Hamlet generally doesn’t present itself to be.
PBN: What types of plays will you be looking to book in upcoming months? COLUMBUS: I have been turning over questions of family, community and home a lot because I left my community in Chicago, where I had been for 20 years. Those are all things that are going to inflect the way that I pick next season.
PBN: What is the role of the theater in a community? COLUMBUS: I think it is unwise to be programming theater that is culturally elite or somehow separate from the needs and the issues of the community. I can’t stand theater that is only for a particular segment of the audience. I cannot stomach people that come to plays and say, “Well, in the 14 critical versions I read of the text. …” It’s like, go somewhere else – not interested in you. I’m interested in things that are intellectually aggressive and challenging and simultaneously entertaining and available to all. … It’s incumbent upon us to do that: to define our community in a really rigorous way and define our approach to that community. In my vision of a dream theater, the theater is integral to the life of the community. It’s not just a cultural watering hole.
PBN: Why did you decide to come to Trinity? COLUMBUS: The theater has a national reputation. I first heard about it in the early 1980s because of Adrian Hall’s work and the notion of him as a populist artist – one who is intellectually engaging and challenging while simultaneously entertaining and committed to making work that speaks to everyone. And he founded his work on a company of actors. … This is one of the last resident companies in America. My dream theater has a resident company at its center.
PBN: What is the role of education in theater, particular Trinity’s Project Discovery, which has worked to introduce school children to the art? COLUMBUS: It’s got to be central. That goes back to this notion of Project Discovery. We’re undertaking a refinement of that program in order to make sure that it’s not a drop-off program, and its education function is deep and lasting. It can be, and on levels it is. But it needs to be on every level.
PBN: What type of impression do you hope to leave on the theater and Rhode Island’s artistic community? COLUMBUS: I just know what I want to do. I think if you’re working toward your legacy, then you’re probably not doing the work that’s in front of you. I can’t be concerned about the way people are going to remember me – partially because as an artist, that’s death. If you’re worried about what you’re going to leave behind, then you are not making something.